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Public Master

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First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton apparently wants to represent New York state in the U.S. Senate. She says she wishes to serve the people of New York.

Read that carefully. She wants to be their servant . Does anyone believe that?

What I’m about to say does not apply just to Mrs. Clinton. It applies to anyone who runs for political office. Mrs. Clinton simply makes a good example.

Her reason for running looks false on its face. If she were truly motivated by a desire to serve people, she wouldn’t have chosen New York, a state with which she has no close connection. People’s good feelings for others naturally diminish in intensity with distance. Feelings are strongest for closest family and friends; they are less strong for mere acquaintances; they are weaker still for perfect strangers one has never even seen. No one can love everybody. Mrs. Clinton’s claim would be slightly more credible had she chosen to run in Arkansas, where she lived many years before moving to the White House. Besides that, she could have waited until 2002, when Republican Tim Hutchinson is up for reelection, sparing herself (and us) the awkwardness of running for office while still the first lady. Even Illinois, where she grew up, would have been a more credible choice.

But she chose high-profile New York-if she can make it there, she can make it anywhere. That alone should induce skepticism about her yearning to serve. Her major connection there is that she and the president once borrowed someone’s home in the tony Hamptons for a brief vacation.

Not being a New Yorker, she cannot claim to know what New Yorkers want. Imagine what the reception would have been if she had announced for governor. A defender of Mrs. Clinton might respond that New Yorkers want what everyone else wants. Then why her “listening tour”?

But there are deeper reasons for doubting Mrs. Clinton’s motives, and they have nothing to do with all that psychologizing about her inner need to break free of the cad she is married to. Politics is about power. Service is merely the rationalization. We recognize this in private life. What would you call someone who insisted on making decisions for you-with your money-whether you wanted this “service” or not? A quidnunc! You wouldn’t admire the presumptuous interloper’s supposed passion for service; rather, you’d suspect that this person wanted power and you’d tell him (or her) to leave you alone.

Why do we apply another standard to someone who seeks political office? The candidate fits the above description to a T. Mrs. Clinton has been wandering through New York “listening,” but in all actuality she’s been implicitly saying to those good folks, “Let me decide how to spend the goodly portion of your income the IRS seizes each pay period. In fact, let me increase that portion. And let me tell you how your medical care, education, and charity ought to be done. Give me that authority over your lives, please.”

Oh yes, the people of New York will get to vote on which quidnunc will “represent” them. That’s a comfort, indeed, especially when the odds are better that a person will be struck by lightning on the way to the polls than that he’ll determine the outcome of the election. But, hey, people have made sacrifices for that right, so I’ll leave that alone.

If you’ve ever met a politician, you know that the last thing on his (or her) mind is service. Officeholders want careers, influence, prestige, acolytes, even lucre. They want to be big wheels. In fact, they aren’t much different from anyone else, except everyone else refrains from forcing his “service” on you-which makes all the difference in the world.

If you’ve watched Mrs. Clinton on television, you already know that she is not looking for the hindmost position of the master-servant relationship. She won’t be serving anybody but herself. What she wants is a base of operation. An old Clinton-watcher, Arkansas newspaper columnist John R. Starr confirms it. He once asked Mrs. Clinton what she wanted. She answered, “I want to run something.”

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.